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How Social Media Drives the Perception of Service in the Medical and Healthcare Industry

At first glance, healthcare and social media wouldn’t seem to mix well together. Medicine is one of those old, august professions, like law, full of Latinate terms and suggestive of stern erudition. Social media, meanwhile, often resembles a game of three-year-old soccer—an anything-goes melee of quite public mud-wrestles and high-pitched screaming. Plus, isn’t healthcare full of HIPAA and compliance issues and regulatory matters concerning privacy? If you livestream an open-heart surgery on Instagram, couldn’t you get sued?

The answer to that is yes. Do not livestream an open-heart surgery on Instagram. With that said, medicine is a pretty tech-savvy field. Think eMAR. Think telehealth. Think VR headsets that patients use to overcome motor deficiencies. So calm your qualms: Social media marketing can help providers reach more patients and act as leaders during a health crisis. Fact-check your messaging and observe industry rules about sharing patient data, and you can turn those puckish platforms into loudspeakers for the public good. Here’s how.

Keep People Informed

We’re still living through what may be the deadliest global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu: COVID-19. For the past year and a half, most of us have checked our social feeds every day for any number of updates—the latest CDC guidelines, takeaways from our governor’s press conference, stats on deaths and infections regionally, nationally, globally. One of the dangers of social media is that it can foster misinformation, and make no mistake, the internet is awash with health tips that are patently false. But reputable social media accounts, like the WHO or Johns Hopkins or your local hospital, can provide much-needed advisories on public health matters such as COVID, ebola, a particularly infectious flu season, and so on.

Companies use social media to grab an audience’s attention, but medical marketing can often work in the opposite direction: People seeking insights from life science professionals about imminent threats. As of January 2021, 53% of US adults reported that they get their news “often” or “sometimes” from social media—which provides the added bonus of being able to keep up with the minute-by-minute, exponential pace of viral outbreaks. Health authorities, then, should use their social accounts to announce updates with the data and transparency needed to navigate through an emergency. A few digital DEFCON tactics to consider:

  • Integrate a chat box function into your site to help people work through any problems they’re experiencing.
  • Publish a Q&A section on your site. (No matter how many insights you give people about COVID, they’ll still have questions.)
  • Ask your social team to reply to comments that users leave on your posts so that you can dispel baseless screeds and route people to fact-based, objective resources. (Yes, such things still exist.)

Striking up a dialog with your audience in times of distress won’t just boost your social metrics—it’ll provide a sense of clarity that transcends a transaction. After all, what better way to earn people’s trust than to resolve issues about their health and wellbeing?

Interact with Patients

Health organizations can use their social media to keep the public apprised of pollution levels, disease risks, transmission rates, and so on. But they can also use their social platforms to maintain a dialog with patients about their individual health concerns.

Facebook, for one, lets users create what’s known as a “secret group”—which, yes, has a comical, double-secret-probation ring to it, but which is actually quite useful, as it provides its members with one degree of privacy deeper than a Facebook “closed group.” These secret groups are hidden from trolls and roboscammers. You can’t search for them or request to join them. To get in, someone has to invite you, and all the content shared inside it is visible only to its members, making it the perfect digital round table to host discussions between, say, hundreds of people who may have been treated for Crohn’s and colitis at the same hospital.

Caregivers and physicians can use these secret groups to share links to the latest research on Crohn’s, recommend nutrition tips and treatment advice, analyze environmental triggers, or give their professional opinion on episodes or flare-ups that different members may be battling through at the moment. These groups aren’t meant to be substitutes for regular appointments. Instead, they can operate as an ongoing panel where patients and physicians stay connected, lowering the possibility that someone in need of medical advice can’t get it in time.

Make Your Services More Accessible

Healthcare is a sprawling enterprise in the US, employing 11% of US workers and accounting for nearly one-quarter of government spending. With all the money flowing through this sector, it’s no surprise that it’s maddeningly complex. Getting a doctor’s appointment is difficult. Deconstructing an insurance policy requires a law degree. Keeping the differences between payer, prescriber, pharma, and PBM straight is beyond the ken of most mortals. 

Nothing about the medical landscape in this country screams “easy to access”—yet social media bills itself as the easy-to-access interface with the world. So how do you pair a speedy function with a cumbersome form? You post content that lets patients access your services no matter which stage of the funnel they’re in.

Again, imagine that your clinic specializes in treating Crohn’s and colitis. Post content that builds a relationship with people diagnosed with Crohn’s who are still in the awareness stage. Share research and link to articles about Crohn’s for other people who are familiar with you (and, therefore, deeper in your funnel). Offer resources for them to connect with you in case they want to switch doctors or need a second opinion about whether they should undergo surgery. Set up your life science marketing strategy to clear hurdles for them. Patients will love you for simplifying the escalating intricacies of healthcare—especially since contacting most providers nowadays is as straightforward as calling the Pentagon.

Change the Perception of Health

We’ll admit it: Advertising can be an unlikeable field, especially when it tricks consumers into funnels that are exploitative or unethical. (Payday scams or pitches for harmful herbicides or attempts to gloss over data breaches all spring to mind.) Yet advertising can also reshape our norms for the better. MADD (“Mothers Against Drunk Driving”) started as a grassroots organization in the 1970s, but through decades-long campaign work, they’ve changed how we view drinking. Pre-MADD, bartenders overserved without compunction, people wheeled their way home from their neighborhood tavern cheerfully snockered, and none of your buddies even had the vocabulary to say, “Who’s the DD tonight?”

Granted, MADD’s ads can be a touch shamey and Prohibitionesque, but they still altered how we behaved at the bar and helped create the Uber-home world we live in today. Leaders and brands can take a cue from MADD’s mad success and urge people to lead healthier lifestyles. Take Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, or United Healthcare’s “Step Up for Summer” pledge to get enough sleep, walk 10,000 steps a day, and eat more fruits and veggies. What’s social media’s role in all this? Serving as the open-air forum where we raise awareness about breast cancer, make sexual health a comfortable conversation, share stories from a global community of patients—the list of potential campaigns is endless.

Advocate for Your Constituents

Yes, the idea of a company that champions a social cause is very much in vogue these days, but fear not: We’re not advocating that you advocate for a polarizing issue and forever hold the high ground. Yet we are aware that health organizations are often quite involved in the communities around them, so use your preferred platform to talk to those communities:

  • Give out the address of nearby needle exchanges. 
  • Combat misinformation about opioid abuse or pain medication management. 
  • Link to webinars that educate the public about a given topic—anything from the efficacy of mask-wearing to Lamaze classes. 

Consider the demographics of the region that you’re in and post health-related content that the people who you care for most frequently would benefit from.

Stay Compliant

Despite everything that we’re saying about the miracles of social media in healthcare, we still want to stress the importance of the regulations that buttress that industry. Know your HIPAA, but also follow your FDA, because that agency will review your social posts and they will send you warning letters if, for example, you’re touting drugs that have not yet been approved. 

That sounds like a simple enough fix: Don’t advertise unapproved drugs. But social media moves quickly, content creators most likely aren’t versed in the FD&C Act, and mistakes happen. To minimize mistakes, pass any posts that you’re unsure about by the lawyers. You may not want attorneys running your Snapchat account, but it is useful to have some knowledgeable staffer in-house who can steer your social strategy through the galaxy of regulations in healthcare—as well as through the health content terms of service for each social platform that you’re using.

And since this is such a sensitive field, monitor the comments that users leave on your social media. False claims, malicious statements, or descriptions that might breach someone’s privacy can all raise compliance issues. Lean on your legal team to advise you here, and use an app like Hootsuite’s Social Safeguard, which lets you upload the policies that you have to abide by and filter your posts through its auditing software.

Partner with the Pros

Ah, social media—the kiss-and-tell darling of the digital era, the funhouse mirror that we all use to show off everything from muffin recipes to our vacay in St. Lucia to our uninhibited willingness to duke it out with total strangers over whether Jordan or LeBron is the GOAT. (LeBron, duh.) According to data from Salesforce, social media is the most popular method for consumers to engage with brands, and social ads happen to be relatively cheap these days. So what’s our diagnosis? If you’re in the medical and healthcare industry, treat yourself to the wonders of social media.

Here’s our only caveat: Don’t use social media to make medicine cool. Don’t pressure some emeritus surgeon into TikTok’ing, well, anything (unless s/he’s an avid choreographer on the side). Don’t compromise your institution’s professionalism for a marketing ploy. Conversely, don’t churn out content if it’s not your specialty, because a lot of healthcare social feels sterile. (There, we said it.) All of the tips that we’ve recommended can help you turn prospects into patients. But, first, talk to a social media agency that’s worked with medical pioneers before—and knows how to bring your brand to life.

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